A Short Story Published: ‘Just Like Hutton’

“Simla, newly-washed by the afternoon rain, sparkled in the sun. As they made their way through Lakkar Bazaar, Kishore and Bhaskar saw shopkeepers wiping down shop fronts and lugging out wares that had been pulled inside when the storm burst.

‘Ma will be furious,’ Bhaskar said as they passed an old Bhutia, hunched under a load of skins as smelly and weathered as him. ‘We’ve never been this late before.’

‘It’s never rained so hard before. Chaachi knows we can’t play cricket in the rain.'”
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A ‘very short novel’

I’ve written long fiction. I’ve written short fiction. I’ve even written some flash fiction. So, when I got a mail from Peter Griffin at Forbes India, asking if I’d like to contribute microfiction for a post on the Forbes India blog, I jumped at the idea.

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A story published in Open Road Review

Open Road Review (ORR) is a brand new literary magazine in India. They’ll be publishing an online issue every three months, in three categories: short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. For the first issue of ORR, its editor, Kulpreet Yadav, invited me to contribute. One look at the guidelines (“literary work that is elegant and subtle… takes the reader to a deeper level”), and I knew Muzaffar Jang, much as I love him, wouldn’t do. What was needed here was something in a very different style.

So here is what I submitted. It’s a story called Maplewood, set in a fictitious colonial bungalow (named Maplewood), where an old widow, transplanted into the middle of the sleepy backwaters of the country, passes her days. It’s a story that came deep from within my heart – not because I myself have felt what the narrator of Maplewood must feel, but I can imagine it. And I can imagine what my reaction would be if I were to find myself in her place.

Do read, and let me know what you think.

 

Some news, some reviews

No, I’m not vegetating somewhere. I am actually working on the fourth book in the Muzaffar Jang series (so, if you like the series, you’ll probably have guessed that the third book is already written). I’m also doing the occasional writing assignment, and some more offbeat but interesting stuff, also connected to Muzaffar Jang. Continue reading

Two Reviews of The Eighth Guest

My latest book – The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries (released in August 2011) – has already begun to receive some reviews. Read on for a couple of excerpts.

The first, by film-maker, writer and blogger Batul Mukhtiar:

“… For anyone who is fascinated by Mughal monuments, clothes, way of life, these detective stories are a pleasure to read…

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Announcing: The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries

A number of readers have been asking me when the next Muzaffar Jang book – the sequel to The Englishman’s Cameo – will be out. So here it is.

Muzaffar Jang features again, in this series of mystery stories, nearly all of them set in Shahjahanabad, the Dilli of Shahjahan’s last years as the Mughal Emperor. As the blurb on the back of the book puts it:

“It is the year 1656. Muzaffar Jang, that rare creature in Shahjahan’s Dilli, an aristocrat with friends in low places, is recovering from injuries sustained during his recent adventures involving two mysterious Englishmen and some reprehensible activities against the Imperial Exchequer.

Muzaffar’s bruised shoulder has yet to heal when he finds himself catapulted into a series of mysteries: An elephant in the Royal Elephant Stables goes berserk and kills its mahout – or does it? A scholarly nobleman – but, oh, such a pompous bore – is left a very puzzling legacy by his father. An artist at the imperial atelier is found murdered next to one of his works.

Muzaffar must pit his wits against treacherous noblemen and scheming traders, greedy villagers and lovelorn men – and women.

But who knows? Before the year is out, Muzaffar may just meet his match…”

I am especially fond of writing short stories, so this collection is one I’ve particularly enjoyed putting together – and they’re stories I hope you will like. The book will be formally released in Delhi, at the India Habitat Centre, on August 19, 2011 – but you can pre-order now on any of these online bookstores:

Landmark | Flipkart | Crossword | IndiaPlaza

And yes, there’s even an early review already published, on this blog.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

Short Story in the Brunch Quarterly

Although I have been busy (winding up the writing of the second Muzaffar Jang novel, finalising the cover and final text of the first set of Muzaffar Jang stories, and beginning work on the second set of Muzaffar Jang – as you can see, Muzaffar Jang more or less rules my life), I have also been doing other writing. An example of this has just been published, in the Hindustan Times Brunch Quarterly, July-September 2011 issue.

Though most people know me as the creator of Muzaffar Jang, the Mughal detective, here I’ve ventured into territory I’ve never traversed before. The editor at the Brunch Quarterly said, “Could you please write another historical detective story for us?”, but since the word limit was 3,000 – a little difficult to fit detection into, at least for me – I decided to make this a somewhat different story. No sleuthing. No Mughal India. But, yes; it’s still not contemporary – it’s set in the Calcutta of the very late 19th century, and it involves, if not a crime, at least something not very nice.

An excerpt from the story, which is named Mangoes and Indigo:

Oscar Leadbetter, after two months on board ship, followed by a cross-country journey from Bombay to Calcutta, was ushered into his cousin’s presence by a turbaned servant. The man, his white muslin jama swishing about pyjama-clad knees, bowed out. Oscar stood before the vast mango-wood desk behind which his cousin sat. Stephen’s drooping moustache and thinning hair were blond, his icy blue eyes the gift of some long-ago Nordic ancestor. He turned that frosty gaze on Oscar.

‘I have had to get rid of my last secretary to accommodate you,’ he said. There had been no invitation for Oscar to sit, no ‘Koi hai?!’ yelled to a servant for whisky.

Oscar murmured something about trying his best, and was treated to a cold stare before Stephen began listing his duties. They were many, and varied. Oscar would receive and segregate correspondence.  He would write suitable responses. He would keep the accounts for the house. He would be in charge of making large purchases – not the meat and vegetables, or the dhobi’s lye, but the substantial ones. Furniture, for instance, or mattresses.

‘Do you expect them to wear out every few months?’ Oscar asked.

Note: Although you can read Hindustan Times online, Brunch Quarterly is in the form of a magazine, available at most large newsstands. Pick up a copy and read for yourself!

 

A Short Story Published

There was a young man down in the street, labouring away at the kebab stall. From two storeys up, I couldn’t see his face; just his back and arms as he went about his work. He had kneaded the keema and I had watched his shoulders moving, wide and muscular, as he worked the meat. His muslin kurta stretched across a broad back as he chopped onions and mint, pounded masalas, reached out to pour oil into the heavy iron kadhai, and pumped the kerosene stove, arms moving rhythmically back and forth, back and forth.

I drew back, breathing deeply of kebabs and kerosene, roses and sweat. A glorious bit of maleness there. Glorious from a distance of twenty feet, in the gathering gloom of a Ramzan twilight. At close quarters, the attraction would probably fade into nothingness. He probably sniveled. Or had a harelip. Or wasn’t interested in girls anyway.

I opened my eyes and looked up at the clock above my bed. It had once been Ammi’s clock, Ammi’s room. I remembered her standing there, just as I was now, waiting for seven o’clock. Always seven. ‘Ameena, don’t step out of this room when they come. Do you hear me?’ Her voice cracking with stress, her eyes grey like mine, scared and bitter.

Yes, Ammi. I hear you.

I hadn’t gone out of the room; they’d come in when Ammi died. But they rarely came in now, because there was no need. Well trained, that’s what I am, like one of those dancing monkeys I had once seen. The monkey-man, his face pinched and hungry, would jerk the string, flinging it up, and the monkey, perfectly trained, would pirouette in unison…

Those are the opening sentences of my latest short story to be published. One Night’s Work is, as the title suggests, about a night’s work—in a setting both modern and historical: the heart of contemporary Shahjahanabad, the busy, sometimes-sleazy, sometimes-charming (often both at the same time) area that most Dilliwallahs refer to as ‘Old Delhi’. Here, while the faithful get ready for an iftaar during Ramzan, as the markets bustle and heave with excitement, an orphaned girl, trapped in a job she hates, is escorted out on yet another assignment.

One Night’s Work has been published by Rupa Publications as part of an anthology titled Why We Don’t Talk. Compiled and edited by Shinie Antony, this is a collection of short stories set in contemporary urban India; stories by writers such as Anjum Hasan, Amit Varma, Jahnavi Barua, Rajorshi Chakraborty and Chetan Bhagat, among others. The book was released in Delhi in August, and costs Rs 295. You can ask for it in major bookstores, or buy it online at the Rupa website and at Rediff Shopping (yes, Rediff have got the details mixed up a bit, but the book’s the right one).

Update, two days later: The Times of India has published a brief review of Why We Don’t Talk: A ‘short and sweet’ collection of 27 stories, some by well-known Indian writers. This volume is like a breath of fresh air – poignant, serious, funny, bitter-sweet and quirky. Amit Varma’s ‘Urban Planning’ is a hilarious account of how politicians, media and the police are foxed by the mysterious movement of landmark buildings in Mumbai. Anita Nair’s ‘Trespass’ tells the story of a chance meeting between two women, one of whom is the mistress of the other’s husband. Samhita Arni’s ‘My Great-Grandaunt’ is one of the best of the lot. A great collection with a brilliant mix of stories.

A ‘short and sweet’ collection of 27 stories, some by well-known Indian writers. This volume is like a breath of fresh air – poignant, serious, funny, bitter-sweet and quirky. Amit Varma’s ‘Urban Planning’ is a hilarious account of how politicians, media and the police are foxed by the mysterious movement of landmark buildings in Mumbai. Anita Nair’s ‘Trespass’ tells the story of a chance meeting between two women, one of whom is the mistress of the other’s husband. Samhita Arni’s ‘My Great-Grandaunt’ is one of the best of the lot. A great collection with a brilliant mix of stories.

The Sari Satyagraha

The washerwoman, her sari clinging to her wet ankles as she drew water from the well, was the first to inform Sulakshana of the news. Sulakshana had been sitting on the charpai under the neem tree that grew in a corner of the courtyard. It was her favourite place, the place she always retired to after she had done the little bit of supervision that was required to keep the household moving on its well-oiled way. The masalas, the rice, and the pulses had been carefully unlocked and handed over to the maharaj; the vegetables had been purchased, and the gardener taken to task for not having trimmed the hedges, which were getting straggly. The local bhishti, his waterskin taut and cool, had come by to ask for the one anna due to him—and Sulakshana had, with characteristic kindness, told him to sit and have a cup of tea while he waited for the munim to bring the money.
It was, thought Sulakshana, rather silly that she should be forbidden to pay the bhishti out of the household money. “It’s a matter of principle,” her husband Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi said. “The bhishti doesn’t bring water for the house; he brings it for the shop. So he should be paid out of the shop’s accounts, not your household money. You have to be organised.”

Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi, despite the fact that he was a mere two years older than his twenty-year old bride, had few qualms about correcting her. His superior education and his wider experience of the world, such as it was, made him (at least in his own eyes) a being far superior to his submissive wife. He had decided opinions about everything from religion to ancient mathematics to politics, and he was not by any means shy about expressing his opinions. His acquaintances, relatives, friends and neighbours were treated, willy-nilly, to long monologues. They were told that Hinduism preached a doubtful theology and could be much enriched by borrowing from Buddhism, Theosophy, and the Brahmo Samaj. They were informed that the only sure cure for a cough was a mixture of ginger, honey and peppercorns; that painting could never be replaced by photography; and that the Treaty of Versailles had been unduly harsh on Germany. Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi waxed eloquent on the many ills of venturing out without first drinking a glass of milk boiled with turmeric; he praised Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra to the skies; and he insisted that there was no monument in India as exquisite as the Zeenat-ul-Masajid in Delhi.
He propounded theories that seemed either utterly ancient or completely avant-garde to a society that never quite knew what to expect of him.

Sulakshana bore, in a large part, the brunt of her husband’s admonitions and advice. “You should not let Birju cook the spinach in mustard oil,” he would say. “It is certain to cause flatulence.” Or, while inspecting a pile of neatly folded clothes brought in by the washerwoman: “Surely you will not accept this? She has been beating the clothes—see, these threads are fraying—”. Or, when he came home early one day and found Sulakshana sitting by herself and reading Devaki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta: “Must you be filling your mind with such trash? If you cannot find a more uplifting book to read, tell me. I’ll get some for you.” And the very next day, Sulakshana had been brought half a dozen books from the local library. They ranged from Premchand and Bhartendu Harishchandra—which Sulakshana enjoyed—to translations of Goethe and Darwin, which put her to sleep.

The young woman bore the restrictions on her reading and her management of the household stoically enough. What irked her, however, was her husband’s never-ending counsel on her dress and deportment. “I do not see why you should be wearing such an expensive sari at home, Sulakshana,” he remarked one day. He had just returned from the shop and was sitting in the courtyard sipping a cup of tea. Sulakshana was sitting before him, waving a palm-leaf fan to keep him cool.

“It’s hardly expensive,” Sulakshana murmured in a moment of defiance. “It is cotton, after all.”

Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi put down his cup and stared at his wife, horror writ all over his thin clean-shaven face. “It is a jamdani,” he said. “A Dhaka muslin. It may be cotton, but it is expensive. You cannot hope to fool me.”

Sulakshana, flushed with annoyance, looked down at the offending sari. It was a beautiful piece of work, a phulwar, with floral motifs woven into an elegant blue-black ground. It had been a gift from an old aunt, and Sulakshana knew well enough that her husband probably knew—to the nearest anna—how much it cost. He, after all, did not own a sari shop for nothing.

She did not say anything, and her husband picked up his cup again. “From now on, let me not find you wearing expensive clothes at home,” he said. “You of all people should know how things are. The poverty, the oppression, the turmoil in this country—the mind boggles.” He shook his head unhappily. “The Great War has not been over two years, and here you are, behaving in this extravagant fashion. Next we know, you’ll be dressing up in a banarasi to go to the temple.”

The arrival of a chance visitor had put an end to the conversation; but from that day on, Sulakshana was allowed to only wear dull cotton saris at home. If she had to go out, she was permitted to drape herself in something slightly expensive, such as a jamdani. Her richly embroidered kanthas, her jamawars and paithanis and tanchois, were put by and unearthed only at Diwali, or on the rare occasion of a wedding.

That day, Sulakshana was wearing a rather battered old tangail, an offwhite sari woven with a pretty border of black and red. It had seen better days; the hem was frayed, and there were a few spots of turmeric that even good strong sunlight had not been able to banish. Sulakshana was sitting cross-legged on the charpai, a well-polished brass paandaan cradled in her lap. She was busy cracking the supari when the washerwoman walked over, squeezing the water out of the end of her sari as she did so.

“There was quite a commotion at the ghat this morning,” the washerwoman said, apropos of nothing. She loved a bit of gossip, and Sulakshana, who had nothing better to do, had no objections to hearing it. She put aside the supari cracker and wiped her hands on her sari.

“Why? What had happened?”

“Some students from the English College had gathered at the ghat and were shouting slogans against the British. The police came and arrested all of them, each and every one. And you know, bibiji, those students didn’t utter a squeak about being dragged off to the police station. That was what really surprised me, the way they happily let themselves be taken away—”

Sulakshana was more in the know than the washerwoman. “Ah,” she said, going back to her task, “That’s because of the Non-Cooperation Movement, Lajwanti. Gandhiji has called for everybody to boycott the British, you know. He has said people should not touch anything that is even vaguely British: so students should leave schools and colleges that are sponsored by the British; government servants should leave their jobs; people should not use public transport. Things like that.”

Lajwanti looked at Sulakshana in wonder, as if Sulakshana herself were exhorting her to all these heroic—and unusual—feats of protest.

“The country will come to a standstill, bibiji,” she said, in an awed voice. “How will we manage?”

“The way we managed before the British arrived,” replied her mistress, with a faint smile.

“But where is the sense in deliberately getting arrested? The students could have easily escaped, bibiji; but I saw them letting themselves be arrested. That’s sheer stupidity; why would anybody want to do that?”

Sulakshana shrugged. “I have no idea,” she said quietly. “But Gandhiji has said that it will help the Freedom Movement, so I suppose he must be right.”

Lajwanti had to be satisfied with this answer; but Sulakshana herself came to know much more about the Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience, Satyagraha, and nonviolent resistance that very evening. Her husband, who had also heard news of the arrests, took it upon himself to educate her.

“Gandhiji used satyagraha as a successful way to protest when he was in South Africa,” he told her as they sat on the verandah after dinner. Sulakshana was mending a tear in one of her saris, and Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi was chewing a paan and gazing pensively out onto the moonlit garden.

“And not just in South Africa, but also in Champaran and Kheda. Everywhere, even the poorest of people have come together in an organised way to protest—peacefully, mind you—against oppression. It has worked in the past; it should work now. Gandhiji has a lot of foresight, Sulakshana. You mark my words; if there is one man who can win freedom for this country, it is he. He alone can show us the way.”

Sulakshana did not say anything. She did not need to; her husband was quite happy listening to his own voice.

“There are other leaders who’re very sceptical, of course—Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Jinnah, plus some others, including Annie Besant—but that is to be expected. You can’t hope to please everybody. What matters is that the younger generation are all for it. The Congress Party is supporting it completely, and already hundreds of people are leaving cushy jobs with the government in order to enlist with the Congress.”

He droned on, recounting to a bored Sulakshana all the events of the past few weeks that seemed to indicate the increasing antagonism of the people to British rule. He extolled the right-mindedness of leaders like Maulana Azad and Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, who supported the Non-Cooperation Movement. He rattled off, as if he had learnt them all by rote (and Sulakshana wondered privately if he had actually done so), all the major incidents of Civil Disobedience in the past week. Sulakshana was told, in painstaking and tedious detail, of each arrest in the city; of each case of refusing to salute the Union Jack; of each episode that smacked even faintly of resistance to British rule. Sulakshana was yawning surreptitiously by the time he finally sat back in his chair and said, “It’s time we were asleep. Don’t want to be late getting up tomorrow morning, do we?”

Sulakshana’s interactions with the outside world were limited to the small-time traders and hawkers who came by with their wares; the servants; and a small circle of friends and relatives whom she occasionally visited, along with her husband. From these people, and from the newspapers that her husband insisted she read—“For heavens’ sake, you’re not illiterate! Use your education, Sulakshana. Read, read!”—she managed to remain somewhat abreast of what was happening. But it was, ultimately, her husband who directed her.

About a week after the mass arrest at the ghat, Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi came home to announce to his wife that their household was going to be joining the Non-Cooperation Movement.

Sulakshana, who was sitting on the bed and sewing buttons on to her husband’s kurta, looked up in surprise. “Joining the movement?” she said faintly. “But why? I mean—how? As it is, we do nothing to support the British.”

Her husband took off his neat black achkan and hung it up before turning back to her. “You may not think so, Sulakshana,” he explained patiently. “But unwittingly, we- and I don’t mean just the two of us, but also the servants- may be doing a lot of things that help support this colonial government. It’s wrong, absolutely and utterly and completely wrong. We’re killing our own motherland, Sulakshana; have you no patriotism in you?”

Sulakshana did not respond to this melodramatic piece of rhetoric, and her husband continued. “For instance: when you go to the market, or to visit your old school friend, you use public transport. Now that is support of the British government.”

“But I go in Manohar’s ikka,” said Sulakshana plaintively, a protest that drew a scowl from her husband.

“But do the servants do the same? No, they don’t—”

“They walk,” Sulakshana interrupted gently.

“All right, all right—maybe not as far as public transport goes, but there are other ways. We should stop using anything that is manufactured abroad. Be Indian, buy Indian. So no more of these fancy things you keep filling the house with. We are not here to help support the British economy. We have to look to our interests first, the interests of our nation—”

Sulakshana cut in again, this time not quite so gently. “Your hair oil is English,” she pointed out. “And your shoes. And the tailor who made those smart jackets of yours was also British, I think.”

“Certainly not! He was not British, he was a Goan gentleman. Part Portuguese, maybe, but very definitely not British. You cannot be expecting me to be burning up my jackets just because the man who made them is Goan. That would be silly. But yes, the hair oil must be thrown out. Get Birju to buy me some coconut oil when he goes to the market tomorrow.”

He paused a while, chewing his upper lip thoughtfully. “There is so much that can be done,” he said. “So much. We must do our bit, Sulakshana. It would be a shame if we didn’t.”

His wife nodded, and for a change (considering her recent volubility) did not say anything. Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi frowned to himself, and then, unable to think of anything else to say, went off to the room he liked to call his study.

Her husband may not have said anything further on the topic; but Sulakshana’s sister-in-law, who came visiting the next morning, had much to say. Devaki was a stout, richly dressed woman with a deceptively jovial exterior that hid an iron will. She was a good twelve years older than her brother, and was one of the very few people who paid no heed whatsoever to Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi’s many strictures. Fortunately for Sulakshana, this formidable lady had developed, almost from the day Sulakshana was married, a soft corner for her brother’s timid young bride.

Devaki bustled into the house shortly after ten in the morning, accompanied by two children and a servant carrying a large basket of mangoes. The servant was sent off towards the kitchen, the children were handed into the care of a maid with clear instructions not to let them wander near the well; and the lady herself turned to Sulakshana.

“Come along, child,” Devaki commanded, her bangles jangling as she caught Sulakshana’s arm and steered her towards the charpai under the neem tree. “I have something to say to you—here, Birju—” she broke off to yell—“some tea, and bring the sugar separately!”

The charpai creaked as Devaki lowered herself on to it. Sulakshana sat down, her hand automatically picking up the palm leaf fan. Devaki talked of this and that—her children, her husband, an excellent recipe for lime pickle—until Birju brought the tea. When he had returned to the kitchen and the two women were alone, she said, “What have you done to yourself?”

Sulakshana reddened, but she did not look at Devaki. She stared down into the milky brown depths of the cup she was holding, and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I am perfectly well, Didi.”

“You are well, I can see that,” Devaki snapped. “I am not commenting about your health, anyway. And well you know it!” She put her cup down and reached across to caress Sulakshana’s head in a distinctly maternal way. “Why are you looking so neglected, child? Is that fool to blame for this?”

Sulakshana shook her head vigorously. “There is nothing wrong with me, Didi,” she persisted. “Nothing at all.”

“Then why, pray, are you dressed like a beggar woman?” retorted Devaki acidly. “Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi’s wife, a rich young lady if I ever saw one, wearing little better than rags!”

Sulakshana bit her lip unhappily.

“Well?”

“It—it’s not good to be wearing expensive saris at home,” she whimpered.

“Hah! Parroting what that dolt of a husband of yours has told you, if I’m not mistaken.” Devaki’s eyes glittered. “Is that it? Did he tell you to stop wearing decent clothes at home?”

“He said it would not do for me to be extravagant. The war is barely over, and people are poor and oppressed…” her voice trailed off, betraying a serious lack of conviction.

Devaki tut-tutted. “And you listened to him. Pray how will your wearing rags help the poor and oppressed?” She waited for an answer, but since Sulakshana did not oblige her with one, she continued. “He may be my brother, Sulakshana, but I am under no delusions. He is a fool, and you’re a greater fool if you let him dictate such things to you. Let him concern himself with trade and politics and other such matters. Where the household is concerned—and most importantly, where you are concerned—he cannot tell you what you should do and what you shouldn’t. You’re the woman of the house, child—show a little spirit!”

She sipped noisily from the cup of tea and then added, somewhat as an afterthought, “And if I see you wearing those tatters the next time I come, I will personally dress you up in something more suitable.”

The conversation wandered on to other topics, and Devaki did not touch upon Sulakshana’s sartorial inadequacies any more. By the time she finally left—which was after a long and leisurely lunch—she seemed to have forgotten all about it. She hugged Sulakshana briefly, assured her that a jar of lime pickle would be sent the following day, and extended an invitation to dinner whenever Sulakshana and her husband should find it convenient.
Sulakshana stood at the gate for a few minutes after the ikka had disappeared in a cloud of dust down the lane. She looked lost in thought, and when she eventually turned and went back into the house, she had much on her mind.

Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi entered his house that evening to find his wife draped in a stunning gossamer-light chanderi sari. It was a delicate apple green in colour, with a thin border and butis of deep red, embellished with gold thread. It had been, if his memory served him right, gifted to Sulakshana by Devaki. Bought at his own shop, too. An expensive sari—and she was wearing it at home.

Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi stood at the door of the room and gaped. “You- you’re wearing a chanderi,” he gasped unnecessarily.

Sulakshana turned to him and smiled blithely. “Yes. Devaki Didi had given it to me, don’t you remember?”

“Yes—yes, of course I remember,” he replied, halfway between angry and astonished at this unexpected rebellion.

Devaki put down the vase in which she had been arranging flowers, and, with a look of quiet joy on her face, glanced down at the billowing pleats of the sari. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“And expensive,” her husband snapped. “I think I’d told you not to wear your good saris at home.”

“Of course,” Sulakshana replied, looking up at him with limpid eyes. “But you told me that I should do my bit for the Freedom Movement, you know.”

Her husband stared at her in consternation. “What does the Freedom Movement have to do with your saris?”

“Lajwanti told me yesterday that they’re also burning cloth. Cotton cloth. There was a huge bonfire near the vegetable market, so I took Lajwanti along, and gave away all my cotton saris. Gandhiji would approve, wouldn’t he?”

Vibhushan Lal Chaturvedi sank back against the richly carved teak cupboard behind him. Perspiration had broken out on his forehead, and for almost a minute, he felt as if the room was whirling around him in a mad, gleeful dance of malice. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, trying desperately to control the rising panic.

When he opened his eyes, Sulakshana was looking at him anxiously.

“You burnt your saris,” her husband croaked. “But your saris were Indian, completely and absolutely Indian. They’re only burning British cloth. Why did you burn your saris?”

Her face fell. “I didn’t know that,” she said. “I thought all cotton clothes had to be burnt. I’m sorry—but I haven’t given any of your clothes, I didn’t know if you’d want that. So that’s all right, isn’t it?” she added brightly. And her husband, for once at a loss for words, could do nothing but nod.
Sulakshana smiled to herself as she went off towards the kitchen. Devaki Didi would approve of her improved wardrobe.

And Lajwanti, much enriched by the windfall of a dozen cotton saris, would not think herself too poor any more.

(Winner of the e-author version 4.0 competition, http://www.oxfordbookstore.com and Reader’s Digest, 2006)

Love and the Papaya Man

Maya had been sweeping the verandah when the papaya man first appeared. He came slowly down the road, wheeling his bicycle along, one hand balancing the basket of papayas perched precariously on the seat. He did not yell out in a singsong voice, like the other hawkers did, and Maya, busy with her twig broom and her pail of water, became aware of him only when his still, silent shadow fell across the steps of the verandah.
She straightened up, one slim hand tucking a loose strand of hair behind one ear, the other hand quickly letting down the crumpled pleats of the cotton sari bunched up around her knees. From within the house, the mistress, suspicious of the sudden silence, called out, “Maya! Maya, have you finished?”—and then, “What is it? Has someone come?”
Maya, quiet for the briefest of moments, answered, “Papayas, memsahib. There’s a man selling papayas… do we need any, memsahib?”

And that day, for the first time in what was to be a long and literally fruitful association, Maya stepped down into the dusty road, to stand beside the papaya man’s bicycle and examine the fruit he sold. Easily, unhurriedly, she smelt and felt each papaya, aware at the same time of the man who stood by, watching her. A quiet young man, who silently appraised her; admired the curve of her chin, the sleek golden slimness of her waist, and the thick silken plait which snaked its way down—

“This one,” Maya said, and glanced up to find him looking at her. He looked away hurriedly, and Maya, to her chagrin, flushed as she handed him the money, and wrapping up the papaya in the end of her sari, walked quickly away into the house. The man stood for a while, all by himself in the road, looking down at the crumpled money in his palm; then he continued down the road, not bothering to stop in front of any of the other houses.

And so it continued; for days, for weeks, for months. Long after papayas were not really in season any more—the papaya man would come, even if he only had one or two papayas to bring. Wheeling his cycle along, a quiet figure walking through rain and sunshine, dust and gale, stopping always at just this one house in the street. And Maya would watch for him, with a barely concealed tenseness, an eagerness she herself did not acknowledge. Even when the papayas were bitter and unripe; even when they were no good to anybody but Maya- she would buy them. To cut in thin slices and sprinkle with salt and red chilli; to eat, even if not to savour.

Until the day he said, in his characteristic quiet manner, “I won’t be coming from tomorrow.”

Maya gasped, her world suddenly tumbling to her feet. “Why?!”

He paused—perhaps for effect, perhaps because he was nervous—then he said, “I’ve got myself a job, in a printing press—”

She stared, perplexed. “But why? What’s wrong with selling fruit?”

“Doesn’t pay much,” he muttered, and then, gathering up all his courage, he looked her straight in the eye and added, “I’m thinking of getting married.”

That was all the proposal Maya could get out of him; but, a month later, when she stepped into her new home and looked in awe at the grove of papaya trees next door, she could not help but turn and look at her husband in wonder.

Her husband grinned shyly. “My neighbour’s papayas,” he murmured. “I really don’t think he’s missed any.”

(Highly commended winner in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s Short Story Competition, 2002)